DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins haven't had a standout ground game since 2016, and as they push toward the NFL playoffs, Miami could desperately use a late-season revival of what has been a floundering rushing attack this season.
With all the focus on quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa and Ryan Fitzpatrick, it's easy to forget Miami has struggled to run the football, falling to 30th in rushing with an average of 95.3 yards per game and averaging 3.6 yards per carry.
Four different running backs have started for the Dolphins in a season littered with injuries, but the most effective of the group has been second-year player Myles Gaskin. After missing the past four games with a sprained knee, he appears on the verge of returning Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
The expectation is that when Gaskin proves ready to carry the load, he will resume his role as the Dolphins' lead back. Miami coach Brian Flores has indicated Gaskin's health and conditioning might be the biggest factors in his role, and that is key for fantasy football managers who are trying to gauge how this backfield will play out.
"When you're out a few weeks, there's a conditioning element, there's a getting back-to-it element. ... Normally it takes a little -- a week or two weeks to get back to hopefully back to where he was," Flores said. "It all starts in practice. If he goes out there and practices well and we feel like he can take the majority of the carries like he was prior to injury, then that could be the case, but we'll see."
Before his injury, Gaskin led the backfield with at least 63% of offensive reps and 13 touches in every Dolphins game. In four of his past five games, Gaskin had at least 21 touches as the clear lead back.
The Dolphins' backfield has tried everything. Veterans Jordan Howard and Matt Breida were expected to carry the load coming into the season, but neither has worked out well. Howard was released last month after averaging 1.2 yards per carry. Breida has been relegated to situational duty, and when he finally got his opportunity to start last Sunday, he might have fumbled it away.
Gaskin rose to the lead back role ahead of Howard and Breida, then he was injured, so Salvon Ahmed stepped up, and you guessed it -- Ahmed suffered a shoulder injury that forced him to miss last Sunday's game. In stepped Breida and DeAndre Washington, the latter of whom is dealing with a hamstring injury.
When all the backs are healthy, it's easy to see Gaskin leading the Dolphins' backfield in December, with Ahmed and Washington rotating in. They have been the only Miami backs who have shown spurts of success without significant setbacks.
Flores raved about Ahmed's instincts in finding a crease and exploding for a nice gain -- something this offense needs -- though his size (5-foot-11, 196 pounds) might make him a better fit as a change-of-pace back. Running backs coach Eric Studesville praised Washington, who was a trade-deadline acquisition, for his toughness, vision and pass-catching ability. He played well Sunday, and when healthy he could carve out a role as a rotational receiving back.
The Dolphins haven't had a 100-yard rusher since December 2018 (Kalen Ballage). Their season high in rushing is 138 yards; six NFL teams average more than that on a per-game basis.
It's not just the running backs themselves. The young offensive line has been better at pass blocking than run blocking, which means it's failing to consistently open holes.
Veteran offensive lineman Jesse Davis: "We've just got to be more physical. We've got to stick to double-teams. We've got to be able to move the line of scrimmage. That's the biggest issue we were having."
Miami (7-4) isn't ready to give up on the run game.
"Sometimes you've just got to keep pounding that rock," Dolphins offensive line coach Steve Marshall said. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."
A glimmer of hope came late in the Dolphins' 20-3 win against the New York Jets. The Dolphins leaned largely on Washington, totaling 59 of their 104 rushing yards in the fourth quarter. On their final drive, they burned 6 minutes, 20 seconds off the clock -- all with runs -- including multiple third-down conversions. It's the sort of closing success Miami hasn't had all season.
"We have practiced those situations where we talk about, 'Well, what's going to happen here? What's the time on the clock? What's the situation? What's our demeanor, our mentality?'" Studesville said. "It's execution. It takes everybody in those situations where they know you want to run it."